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Catalytic Converter Thefts

Volume 798: debated on Thursday 20 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recent increase in thefts of catalytic converters; and of the impact of these thefts on (1) motorists, and (2) the insurance industry.

My Lords, we know that a rise in the value of metal may be a driver of recent increases in metal theft. We do not have specific data on the theft of catalytic converters. However, recorded offences of metal theft in March 2018 were still 73% lower than in March 2013. We absolutely recognise the distress, disruption and potential cost that this crime can cause victims.

I am very grateful to the Minister for that Answer, which amplifies the point I wish to elucidate, which is that we do not know how widespread this crime is. I declare at this point that my interest was piqued when I was, shall we say, catalytically bereaved, but it is no laughing matter, because it costs £2,000 to replace a converter, some motorists have lost two or even three, and a gang is going round armed with a metal bar to deter people who would stop their malfeasance. Does she have any idea, perhaps from speaking to motor manufacturers, how motorists can best protect their converters—perhaps mechanically—both now and in future?

I regret the noble Lord’s catalytic bereavement—it sounds unpleasant—but he asks a helpful question to which there are two answers. First, practical advice is available from police forces and easily accessible online. They advise installing what is known as a Thatcham-approved alarm, which goes off if a vehicle is lifted or tilted. One can also buy protection devices for catalytic converters as a form of guard, there are marker systems and, obviously, the police advise parking in a well-lit garage. Secondly, my honourable friend the Minister in the other place has set up a vehicle theft task force, which is working with the motor and insurance industries on longer-term solutions.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is neither a technical nor a policing issue but, at its root, a social one? In particular, our prison system is not configured or resourced to reprogramme, educate and train our errant youngsters so that they can engage exclusively in legitimate economic activity.

I should clarify; his knowledge does not come from personal experience, as I understand it. He makes a fair point. There are many reasons, including social ones, behind crime. Of all types of crime, this is one where a technical solution is relevant. Metal theft is down by 73% since the scrap metal Act was introduced in 2013. In this industry, technical innovation has helped to reduce crime.

My Lords, Antonia Grey, the public affairs manager for the British Metals Recycling Association, said:

“It is highly likely that these stolen catalytic converters are finding their way into the recycling system here by being taken to illegal scrap metal dealers who are openly offering to pay cash for materials. This is happening because there is now no enforcement of the law at a time when the budgets of police and local authorities have been eviscerated”.

Does the Minister agree?

I am aware that if you go online—there is no end to the research one does in your Lordships’ House to find out about these things—you find a number of dealers advertising cash for scrap metal, as the noble Lord mentions. Often, however, when you go on to the site, it offers delayed payment, so the dealers may be using a cash offer as a hook. The noble Lord makes a fair point. Obviously, the rise in metal prices has an impact on the attractiveness of this crime type but the scrap metal Act was reviewed in 2017 and found to be working well. We believe that part of the increase in recorded metal thefts is due to better police recording. I repeat: overall crime in this area is down by 73%.

My Lords, next Wednesday, I will ask the Government a Question on the theft of metal more generally, not just catalytic converters; I think the noble Lord, Lord Henley, will answer. I was interested in the Minister’s figure relating to the drop in metal theft since the 2013 Act. That certainly occurred to begin with; one reason for that was the work of the metal theft task force. However, that task force was abandoned; the latest figures, some of which I will bring to the House next week, show that since it was scrapped, the incidence of metal theft has gone up again. Does the Minister agree?

I can only apologise that I am not familiar with the details of the task force but I agree that metal theft has increased by 30% over the past year. I look forward to the noble Lord’s Question.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that crime was generally coming down until about three years ago? One of the principal reasons for that was design. Two things have happened: car design has not kept up with thieves’ ability to steal cars and, sadly, car manufacturers have not continued to prevent catalytic converters being removed and still being useful as converters or scrap metal. Surely that is where the Government ought to aim their attention. It is a long-term project because changing the type takes a while in Europe and, for the manufacturer, the lead time to change a design is long. However, I see no efforts to change car design or catalytic converters yet.

The noble Lord is right that car theft has gone up by about 7% in the past year. In particular, the theft of cars less than a year old, which I think the noble Lord referred to, has increased over the past five years from a fairly steady 5% to 10% to closer to 20%. The vehicle theft task force will look at these exact areas, working with the motor and insurance industries to improve vehicle security standards.